Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Test Drive: 2014 Chevrolet Volt

Before finalizing our decision to acquire the Focus EV, several other plug-in vehicles made it into our decision matrix, including the Chevrolet Volt. In fact, the Volt was the first remotely economy minded vehicle to make it onto the list, in large part because the incentives available on it resulted in some seriously enticing advertised leases. Add to that the fact that all plug-in hybrids in CA can get single person access to the HOV lanes along with several other nice perks (e.g. free parking, available free public charging, etc.) made the idea of owning something so slow a bit more tolerable. Of course, as much as there is to like about a car like the Volt, it is not without its own unique set of faults, which ultimately led us to pursue a totally different direction.

From the outside, the Volt is a surprisingly sleek-looking car. Of course it is no Corvette Stingray, but at the same time, it is no Prius. GM had managed to do a good job taking the fastback shape needed for aerodynamic efficiency and molding it into a form that was somehow less offensive to the eyes than the dorky looking Toyotas. Bits of black and chrome trim are used to highlight and offset certain features of the exterior, giving it a very high-tech look that is reminiscent of high-end consumer electronics as well as creating the appearance of a larger greenhouse and make the car feel less slab sided. Around back, even though it appears like the taillights extend onto the rear hatch, those are merely red reflectors surrounding a piece of tinted glass that improves rear visibility out of the rear hatch. While certainly not a handsome car by any means, it is a uniquely recognizable and geek-chic sedan that should appeal to those who find things like Google Glass to be the height of fashion.

Step inside, however, and it immediately becomes obvious where GM cut the most in order to be able to afford to cram the plug-in technology into this vehicle. Cheap-looking glossy plastic is absolutely everywhere and the metal-flake painted capacitive touch center console does not help one bit. While the layout itself is actually relatively well thought out, the use of the capacitive touch buttons in conjunction with a random assortment of knobs and real buttons seems like the poster child of design by committee. The shiny plastic also has the bad habit of reflecting a ton of light at certain angles, making visibility an occasional issue while driving around. Attempts to trim up the interior, such as including leather seats, did little to help the low-rent interior feel more inviting and the distinct lack of a middle seat in the rear is a glaring omission that at first might not seem like a big deal, but upon further consideration, feels like it would be missed more than expected given the slightly cramped conditions back there to begin with.

At least Chevy's MyLink infotainment system is not a total disaster. It is relatively intuitive to use and between a combination of touch screen controls and capacitive buttons, some of which are redundant, is easy to control. In addition to standard infotainment functionality, the central display is also used to show lots of useful information related to the EV/hybrid nature of the car. Used in conjunction with the car's totally digital instrument cluster, it is possible to maintain a steady diet of data about the car's performance, the battery's state of charge, where power is being routed, and a whole slew of other information. This is useful data in a car with such a unique power train and is one of those things that I wish all manufacturers would include in regular cars. The only real downside is that it can be a bit distracting if you are trying to make sense of all this data while driving.

And speaking of driving, this is where the Volt gets interesting. The Voltec drive train is composed of a combination of electric motors and a gasoline generator that are able to work together to produce the equivalent of 149 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. While the horsepower is on par with other cars in the class, it is really the torque figure that stands out, because that thrust is available right from zero rpm. That means that despite the rather hefty weight and low output, the car feels quite spritely in city traffic, allowing the ability to accelerate quickly up to 30 mph and to use point and squirt tactics to squeeze into small gaps during dense traffic flow. That capability is not something to be taken lightly given how bad the average commute can be in the LA area at rush hour. The 17.1 KWh battery is able to provide up to 38 miles of pure electric range after which a small 1.4L gasoline generator kicks in and is able to drive enough juice into the battery for another 300+ miles, giving the Volt a total range of around 350 miles.

While the instant torque can be hilarious fun in city driving, the ride and handling present a somewhat mixed bag. On the one hand, the steering feel is virtually non-existent and the car drives in almost too digital a fashion so as to feel artificial. On the other hand, the placement of the batteries low in the chassis means that the center of gravity is quite low allowing for surprisingly flat cornering and that aforementioned heftiness translates into a surprisingly refined and settled ride for a car with such a short wheelbase. Combine that with the fact that while operating in battery only mode, the utter lack of engine noise is strangely entrancing, though as soon as the motor kicks in, that serenity of totally lost to the buzziness of the internal combustion generator.

Out on the road, I had a fun time figuring out how to make the most of the Voltec electric drive train, using the regenerative braking as my primary means of slowing down while applying the physical brakes only when coming to a complete stop. Squirting quickly away from a red light means burning up more energy, but also means settling into a set travel speed sooner, allowing for a fairly low overall power usage. It is a very different experience and one punctuated by the near total silence with which the drive train operates. My only qualm is that the wind and road noise are not nearly as well damped in the Volt as they were in some other competitors I had driven.

Coming back to return the car, I felt conflicted about the Volt. I honestly did not expect to like it as much as I did and it was the quality of the ride as well as the instance torque that won me over. What I still struggled with was the low-rent interior and surprisingly high amount of road noise that stem from not having a motor to cover it up. On top of that, the limited usability due to the missing 5th seat as well as overall limited cargo capacity were things that we were not sure we could deal with given the cost. To top it all off, the deals that had been advertised were on cars that lacked many of the features and options we actually wanted to have included, meaning a lot of bargaining would be ahead.

Of course, much of this would be moot as GM has announced a brand new Volt will be introduced for the 2016 model year that addresses many of the shortcomings we found in the current generation car. A longer battery only range, more attractive interior, and return of the 5th seat are all things that have already been noted for the second generation model and since no one has actually driven the car, there is likely to be plenty more to uncover. However, if you are unable to wait until the new car becomes available, the current generation Volt is far from a terrible car to own. The range extender, albeit one that swills premium fuel and returns middling fuel economy, does offer a lot more flexibility than a purely battery powered car. Still, I did not really find the Volt to be worth the sacrifice, though it was pretty darn close. If you have never experienced an EV before, the Volt makes for a decent first experience and assuages the concerns over range anxiety. However, what we quickly found, as many PHEV owners ultimately do, is that having the range extender is more complexity to carry on board for something that almost never gets used.

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